Lakers ready for playoff challenge in San Antonio

Kobe Bryant vowed to lead the Los Angeles Lakers into the postseason. He lived up to his word, but will not be participating in the festivities because of a torn Achilles.

The Lakers will move on without their star player when they invade the Alamo City Sunday afternoon for Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against the San Antonio Spurs.

It was a struggle for the Lakers to capture the seventh seed in the West and they are in the playoffs for an eighth straight year, winning a pair of NBA titles in that stretch. The last time the Lakers failed to reach the postseason was back in 2004-05.

But the biggest news for the Lakers is that they will be without five-time champion Bryant. Bryant was hurt in the fourth quarter of last Friday's game against Golden State and trainer Gary Vitti said: "Third-degree rupture. It's gone. It has to be sewn back together."

That is something no athlete wants to hear, especially for one who is on the cusp of retirement. Bryant's season ended with averages of 27.3 points, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds in 78 games.

When one door closes, another opens. That's where Dwight Howard enters the picture. The Lakers hope they can ride the broad shoulders of Howard, who was able to carry several Orlando Magic teams into the playoffs and even an NBA Finals appearance.

"We just understand that we have to go out there and take care of business," Howard said. "We don't have any concerns; we know what we have to do and I feel like we're going to go do it. This is a new season, zero-zero now. The regular season is behind us, so we have all the confidence in the world that we can go in there and play basketball to win."

Howard, of course, will have to defend Spurs future Hall of Fame big man Tim Duncan and that won't be an easy task for how well he's been playing.

"The biggest thing against Tim is to not let him get comfortable," Howard explained. "But also go back at him on the other end; make him play defense, make him work. And I think that's the best way to go at it."

The Lakers hope guard Steve Nash can join Howard in trying to steal a game at San Antonio and the veteran floor general is probable with a series of ailments (hip, ankle, back). Nash was sidelined the last eight games of the regular season.

Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and the backcourt tandem of Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will have to carry their own weight for the Lakers, who ended the season with five straight wins and eight in the last nine. The Lakers also dealt with the loss of longtime owner Jerry Buss this season.

San Antonio is in the postseason for a 16th consecutive year, winning four titles in that stretch, and ended with the No. 2 seed in the West after failing to catch the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Spurs did win their third straight Southwest Division crown, but didn't play like champions at season's end, losing three straight and five of seven contests. The Spurs, though, have a clean slate for the playoffs and Duncan is ready to roll Sunday.

"It's going to be a tough series for us ... we're ready for it," Duncan said. "They have a very good team and obviously they had a rough year, up and down with their team and this is their chance to kind of make a big splash. We're ready for the challenge and we understand how good a team they are."

Duncan and the rest of his teammates had time to prepare for the Lakers and get into an rhythm. He added it was good recovery time for those who needed the extra rest and to work on defense, which the Spurs did poorly down the stretch. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich runs a difficult scheme and there's no doubt his players have worked diligently in trying to get back to the uniform style of play, which is play defense and run the floor.

Spurs guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and forward Kawhi Leonard will share touches with Duncan in hopes of getting an early series lead. The Spurs defeated the Lakers twice in three tries in the regular season, but Los Angeles is 8-3 all-time against San Antonio in the playoffs.

Parker and Ginobili weren't 100 percent in the regular season and appear healthy for this upcoming playoff run. So does newcomer Tracy McGrady, who was recently added to the roster. Duncan said McGrady "looks good," but still needs time to absorb Popovich's game plan. McGrady could even see action Sunday against the Lakers.

Duncan is averaging 16.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.67 blocks in the three games against L.A. this season. Duncan and Popovich have been together for 190 playoff games, the most in NBA history. Popovich is third all-time with 118 playoff victories under his belt, trailing Phil Jackson (229) and Pat Riley (171).

The Spurs were 35-6 at home this season and own a 54-19 mark since moving to the AT&T Center during the 2002-03 campaign.